Blowout

The Deepwater Horizon oil blowout is so upsetting that I have not been able to write about it. I can barely absorb the enormity of it. Which aspect of this mess does one focus on? The human lives lost? The oil itself? The risk of drilling deep wells (4 – 7 miles deep) in deep water? The impact on deep sea marine life, on corals, on turtles, on tuna, on dolphins? The impact on shore life, on pelicans, on marshes, on shellfish, on oysters? The impact on people who fish for their livelihood? The impact on people who love the marshes and used to go to them for solace, to connect with unspoiled nature? Does one focus on BP, Transocean, Haliburton, and the layers upon layers of lies and deceptions that continue to this day, but that one realizes are part and parcel of corporate life in the modern world? Does one focus on the political grandstanding and government incompetence and complicity? Does one talk about the way in which mega-corporations now influence every aspect of our lives, for who can resist a corporation that earns a couple billion dollars in profit every month? Does one talk about how our democracy appears to be in tatters? Does one talk about the shallow reporting and blatant propaganda and the way the government-corporate-security machine blocks real reporting? Does one talk about our own complicity, about our utter dependence on fossil fuels? Does one look for the droplets of hope in this sea of despair? This “spill,” this catastrophic blowout, touches everything, just as oil now touches everything. Can one write sensibly about everything, and the collapse of everything? The only meaningful response must also touch everything.

In 2003 I played a minor role in a much smaller oil spill on the southern shores of Massachusetts. I was a shorebird monitor working for Massachusetts Audubon when several hundred thousand gallons of fuel oil spilled out of a barge making its way through Buzzards Bay. Much of that oil came ashore on the sanctuary where I was working. I learned three things on the day when the representatives of the Federal and State governments and the “responsible party” showed up to “manage” the crisis.

First, we have no effective contingency plans for dealing with oil spills, so the response is “make it up as you go along.” Oil spills are chaotic and unpredictable. We could at least TRY to prepare, which we don’t seem to do at all. Having plans in place, and then following those plans would surely help a lot. BP and the Federal government both appear to have failed catastrophically on this score. But still, I did see first hand that oil spills have a life of their own, and the response has to be both highly coordinated and profoundly flexible, features not apparently built into either corporate or government bureaucracies. Features that are perhaps not fully achievable, which should give us extreme pause about allowing drilling to take place in deep water in the first place.

Second, ego rules the day. Everyone wants a piece of the action, wants to be in charge, wants to be the top dog, wants to stick it to everyone else. It’s hard to find anyone who really gives a damn about what’s happening. It’s hard to be in the middle of an oil spill and not become cynical.

Except, in the case of the Buzzards Bay spill, the people who were hired to do the actual cleaning up. Mostly ethnic minorities, probably not paid very well, many bussed in from all over the country, roaming the beaches in yellow hazmat suits in the hot sun, picking and raking and shoveling the oil into garbage bags. They were, for the most part, disgusted by the whole thing, and genuinely interested in the welfare of the plovers and terns who were nesting on the beach at that time (it was exactly this time of year – seven years ago on this day I was patrolling the beach, educating the cleanup workers about the birds, and updating my sketches of every nesting bird and the oil patterns on their feathers. We couldn’t capture the birds to clean them because that would mean abandoning active nests). Lesson number three: if you want to know what’s going on, don’t listen to the big shots. Listen to the men and women doing the dirty work (unless the Corporation has put a gag order on them).

I had taken the bird patrol job originally because I had been sick for a couple of years with something akin to chronic fatigue syndrome, along with debilitating heart palpitations, and I needed a quiet, healthy, outdoor job. I wanted, more than anything, to become deeply acquainted with the land and the sea, to open wide all my senses and become intimately familiar with one little stretch of coastline and all its inhabitants. I wanted to atune my life to the rhythms of the land and the sea, to orient my life to a Life deeper than myself, and deeper than the stressful human world as well.

Instead, an oil spill on my very first day on the beach, egos galore, chaos, stupidity and many, many sad oily birds, most of whom could not be saved, most of whom were probably never even seen. I left that job sick at heart, even more exhausted than when I went.

And now I see the same thing playing out on a much larger scale in the Gulf. We seem to be incurably shortsighted and negligent, even willfully destructive of the only home we have. We seem to have physical power — fossil fuel augmented power — well beyond the capabilities of our brains, certainly way beyond our level of wisdom and respect. I really don’t understand how short-term profit has managed to eclipse all good sense, but it has. The impression I have of the BP execs is that, in the words of Bruce Cockburn, “they’ve been lying so long they don’t know what’s real.” They are living in a delusional world. But in a sense they are just magnified versions of the rest of us. We have all been living in a delusional world. One in which we believed we could heap any amount of abuse on our planet home, could live for our self-gratification alone, and there would be no consequences. The Earth would just take it and take it and keep on taking it, indefinitely, infinitely, without complaint.

Well, the abused Earth had one too many holes punched in her and now she is pouring out her life blood.

It seems terribly clear to me that we do not know how to think about being part of a living world. We are pretty good at thinking mechanically. We’re great at inventing gadgets. We are amazingly good at spinning theories. We are lousy bad at understanding complex systems. There’s a reason for that. Complex systems — bodies, ecosystems, planets — can’t be understood. They aren’t linear. They aren’t predictable. Small changes create big changes. They adapt. They invent. One cannot control them or master them. If one wants to survive, one can only work with them, attentively. One must learn their rhythms and their ways more deeply than mechanical thinking can encompass. It’s like riding a wave. You can’t predict what it will do. You can only go with it and keep your balance. You need to “think” with your whole body, not just from the narrow confines of your left brain. You have to respect the wave you are riding. Try to dominate it, and it will teach you who the Master is.

Are we learning? Are we learning that we are not the master here? Are we learning that our planet home is beyond our control and comprehension? Are we learning that our planet is alive and dynamic and inventive and ever-changing? Are we learning that we have limited brains that can only see from a limited perspective? More knowledge is not going to save us. Only more humility. Only coming to a full understanding of how little we know — how little we can know — and learning to live sensitively in not knowing.

We are adapted to function at a small scale, at a community scale, where no individual is expected to know everything, and no individual has much power over anyone else. Maybe our institutions have become too big for any human being to manage. Maybe it is not humanly possible to behave decently within such monstrosities. Maybe we have created financial and corporate and government systems too big and powerful for our limited brains to handle, and we need to scale down, rapidly, back to the community scale that we can comprehend. At the very least, we need to figure out how to break the death grip that mega-corporations and financial institutions have on our lives, on our government, on our democracy. We must end the cycle in which the giant corporations get all the reward for unmanageably risky behavior, and the rest of us, and the planet, get all the pain. There is much more being revealed here than negligence on the part of an oil drilling operation.

“Not knowing” used to be the language of mystics. Now it is the language of survival. We need to accept how little we can know, and change our behavior so it is in harmony with our profound ignorance. We could use a healthy dose of caution. From a full appreciation of our limits, knowing how little we can know, comes greater attention to the life that is right at hand, and greater sensitivity to the possible consequences of acting out of ignorance. With “not knowing” comes attention, humility and compassion.

There is so much we can never know. We can never know the living truth that is the planet’s life. Our only hope for survival is the recognition that we are a part of that planet, and if we reach deep enough into ourselves and discover our essential ignorance, we can also find our essential inseparability from the home that is so much more than just a place we occupy. It is our body. We are part of it as much as blood cells are part of the human body. We are currently behaving like blood cells in rebellion against their host, a condition that cannot turn out well. That behavior will end. It will either end before the body collapses, or it will end with the collapse of the whole body. But end it will, because the part cannot attack the whole and survive.

We need to recover our rightful place within the natural order of Earth’s body and the deeper order of being in which even it is embedded. We need to recognize that our intellectual understanding of that larger body is, and always will be, partial, limited and distorted in most of its essentials. We must live with a deep appreciation of our ignorance. The way of “not knowing” is the way of listening deeply. It is the way of learning. It is the way of being fully present to life as it is unfolding. It is the way of respecting Life over self. It is the way of being open to the whole truth. It is the way of creative improvisation. It is the way of love. It is the way of Life itself.

Watching Whales, Watching Ourselves

Watching whales is like the best kind of meditation. It is completely baffling.

Meditation isn’t really worth anything unless it exhausts all of our strategies and concepts and opinions and plans and ideas about who we are and what the world is, and leaves us with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Leaves us with nothing at all to grab onto, no safety net, no life raft, no “self.” Nothing but this moment in its marvelous, incomprehensible actuality.

Well, maybe watching whales doesn’t do that for most people, but it does for me. Whales are extremely hard to observe. They are completely at home in a medium we can barely approach. They appear but briefly in our view, and from those brief glimpses we construct an idea of who they are and what they are doing. We can attach cameras and time-depth recorders to their backs with suction cups, and those stay on for a few minutes or hours, expanding our glimpse a little bit.

But all we ever get is a glimpse. And from that glimpse we concoct an entire world: our idea of what a whale is.

Most of us don’t realize it, but this is exactly what we do with our own lives as well. All we ever get is the tiniest glimpse of the world. Even our own life is largely unknown to us. The brain has functions and purposes and motivations and decision-making processes that remain forever unconscious. Like the whales, we are largely mysteries, even to ourselves. Other people, other animals, other life forms, are entirely mysterious. A tiny glimpse is all we ever get.

And from those fleeting glimpses, we construct a world view. We patch all the gaps and cracks with our ideas, with a creative surmise about what it all means. We walk around pretending we know exactly who we are and exactly what the world is, imposing our world view onto the world, all the while not really having a clue. And we don’t even know we are doing this. We think the world we know is the actual world. We pretend we have it all figured out, and all under control. We happily ignore the fact that all we get is fleeting glimpses.

Meanwhile the world lives beyond any ability of ours to grasp it and understand it.

The thing about watching whales is that even if you are very observant and keep careful notes and spend years following them around, they keep surprising you. They keep inventing new behaviors. The keep baffling your expectations. You can not possibly figure them out. All you can do is enjoy them in their actuality, and play the game of trying to understand them, and stay open to the truth as it reveals itself, always new.

This is a simple and obvious fact about observing whales. It is also a simple and obvious fact about observing our own lives. But it is hard to see this in ourselves. We want very much to believe that we know who we are. We do not like the feeling that we are driven by powers and processes hidden from our own view. We do not like admitting that the “me” of conscious understanding and experience is not the truth.

But this remains true, whatever we think or feel about it: Like whales, we are a mystery, even to ourselves. Our lives go on largely out of view. We often do not know why we do what we do. We are more unconscious than conscious. We pretend we know. We invent stories to explain ourselves to ourselves. But we do not really know. What we know is but the exhalation as the whale comes up to breathe. We ignore the disappearance back out of sight. We stitch together the conscious experiences, and pretend that the patchwork result is “true to life.”

The thing about watching our lives is that even if we are very observant and keep careful notes and spend years in meditation or therapy, we keep surprising ourselves, and each other. We invent new behaviors. We baffle our expectations. We can not possibly figure each other or ourselves out. All we can do is enjoy each other and ourselves in our actuality, and stay open to the truth as it reveals itself, always new, always surprising, always deeply mysterious. Just like watching whales.

Waves of Stillness

For the past several months I have been working on a major revision to my CD, Natural Meditation. That project has become a bit bogged down. So I wanted to share with you, my faithful blog readers, the new track for the CD. I recorded the track on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, last August. Here is the script for the track, not as I originally recorded it but as edited for the new CD. It is one of my favorites, about the closest I have yet come to conveying the essence of how I see the world.

One other note: when I capitalize the word “Life” I am referring to the entire life-system, birth, growth, decay, death, reintegration, rebirth, the complex interplay of ecosystems, and all the unseen, unknown underpinnings of the same. Like wise when I capitalize “Bay.” I am referring not just to a body of water but to an entire life-system.

jlc

I want to take some time to talk about something I consider central to natural meditation.

I’m sitting on the shore of the Bay of Fundy, shrouded in fog. Foghorns sound in every direction. The Bay of Fundy is a 180-mile long, 700-foot deep, ancient rift valley at the northern end of the Gulf of Maine. Over 100 billion tons of water flow in and out of the Bay every twelve hours, making it an area of exceptionally high marine productivity and endlessly changing character.

A large grey seal lives here, whom I have observed over several years. A length of orange nylon rope is wrapped around his neck that was once attached to a lobster pot or a bit of fishing gear or a buoy. He got entangled in it and couldn’t get it off, and the rope has remained in place. Over the years his skin has folded over the rope, embedding the rope in his neck. Filaments of nylon stick out like hair. The neck looks raw and infected. The seal can’t do anything about it and the presence of this rope will surely shorten his life.

The Bay remains abundant with seals, dolphins and porpoises, large whales, pelagic birds, and the herring and plankton on which they all feed. But for how long? Whales and seals get entangled in our gear, seals are shot wholesale by fishermen who see them only as competitors for their livelihood, and the fisheries are erratic. Here on the shores of the Bay, it is all on display: nature’s abundance and inherent balance, and the imbalance we have introduced. Our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the resources to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are tightening like a rope around the neck of the world.

How has such an intricately balanced system lost its equilibrium? For the first time in the history of the earth, as far as we know, one species’ activity is having an impact at a planetary level. Radical change is needed, but what is the root of the imbalance?

Most of us derive our sense of who we are from the things that we accumulate, not only money and possessions, but our accomplishments, our status in the community, our personal resume. We spend our lives trying to pin ourselves to these things, to locate ourselves in them.

But it doesn’t work. When we reach what we think is going to be the pinnacle of achievement or possessions or experiences, even spiritual experiences, very quickly that achievement loses its savor, and then we need the next thing. Another pinnacle appears and we feel like we have to set out to achieve that new pinnacle. We are never satisfied with who and what and where we are right now. We are always seeking something else, something more, something better. And that constant pursuit of more is running full speed into the wall of the physical limits of the planet.

And since that pursuit of more and better never brings true satisfaction, but is actually making most of us more miserable, and making the planet less vibrant and healthy, it makes sense to step back and ask, what does satisfy? What makes for a rich and satisfying life?

This is where natural meditation has a part to play. It may not seem like much, but it makes a real difference to take a look around at what is right here. It makes a difference to listen to the waves crashing on the rocks, or watch the gulls flying by, or the swirling of the fog, the grass bending in the wind, the other animals going about their lives, looking for food, looking for each other, playing. It makes a difference to pay attention to our own thoughts and feelings and sensations in the same way, without blame and without self-justification, without an agenda. Paying attention freely, opens up the possibility of clearly seeing the natural world, the impact we are having on it, and our place within it. Paying attention makes it possible to see the ways in which the mind tricks itself into thinking it is separate from everything else. And paying attention in this way allows a sense of self to emerge that is deeper than any words or ideas can convey.

At its root, the ecological crisis is not about too much carbon and too many people and too much waste and too many toxic products. It is not about bad policy and inefficient technology. It is about us. We have forgotten who we are. In our scramble to accumulate and possess, to understand and control, we have lost touch with the living truth, which we cannot possess. Paying attention to the whole movement of Life, is one way of remembering what has been forgotten, and restoring the balance.

The fog is clearing a little and the wind is picking up, creating ripples on the surface of the water. These ripples have their own distinct, individual quality, yet they are in no way separate from the Bay. In partnership with wind, the Bay forms surface ripples that arise, intertwine, fade and disappear.

Nothing can be held. Everything slips away from us: our most beloved friends and companions, our most cherished ideas of who we are and what the world is, our own lives. Everything is in motion, like ripples on the surface of the deep. Everything resides in stillness, like the depths underlying the activity at the surface.

When I first came to the Bay of Fundy I was captivated by its presence. 100 billion tons of water in motion, yet the stillness of it enfolds everything in its embrace. Stillness in motion. The deep, rippling at the surface. The whale, rising to breathe. This stillness lives in us as well, and knowing it is a profound homecoming. Knowing this stillness at the heart of our own lives reunites us with everything.

Watch the grass blowing in the breeze. Watch the sun rising. Listen to the rain falling. Listen to thoughts arising in the mind and falling away, like waves crashing on the shore.

This is life in this moment, the true miracle. This is deep stillness, expressing itself in everything. In us. In the other animals. In the plants, the insects, the water, the soil, the air, the clouds, the fog, the mountains, the deep bedrock, the depths of the sea, all the sea creatures, the empty space within and between, all the life fueled by the sun’s energy, all the phenomena in the universe.

When we discover this stillness in our own being, then we have no need for more than this that is, right here, right now, exactly as it is. Because this is everything. In this moment, in life being lived right here, right now, the whole universe participates. It is all the movement of stillness. All the marvelous interplay of waves on the surface of the deep, and therefore the very deep itself.

Whaledreamers

I somehow thought that the key to waking us up to the dire situation of the earth right now, and the key to rapidly finding solutions would be for us to wake up to our true nature, to see the false nature of the mind-created self, and the deep truth of who and what we are. It doesn’t appear to be working out that way. I am finding the words inadequate. I am finding that no one understands them, unless they understand them already from their own powerful experience of the deep unity of our existence. Without that experience, they are just more words, of little or no use.

And I am finding that there are people who are claiming to be “awakened” to their true nature as “consciousness”, who nevertheless seem to have little or no understanding of or concern for the unprecedented ecological catastrophe that humans are visiting upon our earth home. They may well be doing some hidden good for the earth, but it’s hard to tell.

I just watched the new Julian Lennon movie, “Whaledreamers.” The movie is about the Mirning people of Australia, a nearly exterminated indigenous people who have an ancient tradition of dream communication with the whales. It is not a great movie. Some of the whale footage is beautiful, and aspects of the story of the Mirning are moving and inspiring, but the movie is a bit too hip and superficial for me to get very excited about it.

And yet, this one thing does come through the gloss. Whales change people’s lives. Whales are waking people up, to both the environmental devastation we are visiting on the the earth, and to our essential unity as integral parts of a living planet. This has been my experience, and it is the reason I love my whale work. With one look, a whale can communicate the whole thing. You are not the separate little organism you think you are. You are this amazing thing called Life. We are one being, like one superorganism. I’d have to say whales are most likely the brains and we are merely the hands. God help us, the hands think they are the brains and are choking their own true brains and the world that is their true body.

All it takes is one look from a whale, and many people get this immediately. But so few of us ever get to look a whale in they eye, that it then becomes the job of people like me to try to convey that experience, and the vital message it transmits, to those who have never seen a whale, have never had the experience of oneness. It is like being an ambassador from a world that has a language that can not be translated into any human language.

Words create distinctions. In unity, there are no distinctions. Unity doesn’t mean similar to, or connected to. It means one. We are one. There is only the one. There are no separate things. Humans just like to pretend we are separate and act as if we are separate, apart from all the rest. But we are not separate. Not from each other. Not from the whales. Not from earth. Not from cosmos. Never were. Never will be.

Somehow whales know how to communicate this fundamental unity. They communicate it in a way we all can understand, without words. I wish I knew how they do it. That is what all my words attempt to convey, not the idea of unity, but the fundamental fact of unity. We and the whales and the whole earth and the whole universe are one living entity. When we do harm, we are harming our very selves. Not figuratively, literally.

Oh, never mind. Find yourself a whale, and hope she looks you in the eye. You’ll never be the same.

Nothing and Everything

It isn’t that often these days that I get to have a real honest-to-goodness experience of the nondual nature of reality, but for some reason it came in the middle of the night. In the wake of that timeless, spaceless “moment,” the mind came roaring in for several hours with its attempts to describe, explain, return to, claim ownership of, categorize, and so on, this inexplicable “experience.” This amazing thing shows up and the mind just desperately wants to understand it, and is utterly incapable of doing so, not for lack of trying!

The “experience” itself, which is more of a non-experience, is simply the two-fold sense that the self is an utter illusion, and that reality is absolutely undivided. There really is only one thing, one being, one entity, which encompasses everything. The strange thing about being the only thing in existence is that there is no “other.” All-one-ness is absolute aloneness. The beauty of things appearing as separate is that they get to experience reunion. They get to experience love. In the all-one there can be no “experience” of anything, and certainly not of love.

So maybe love is what this whole thing is here for. Maybe everything, all these seemingly separate things, are here to fall in love. The one appears as two so there can be a me and a you and we can fall in love and revel in the mystery of our other-ness.

But underneath and within all of that, there really is only one. There is no other. So there is nothing to lose and nothing to gain, and all the conflict based on fear of loss and striving to gain is utterly unnecessary, born of the illusion of the “self,” but still there is only one and even all of that illusion is an expression of the one.

Strange stuff. There really is no me and no you. Not really. But there is, of course the vivid appearance of a me and a you. And that is as it should be, because all-one-ness is pretty flat without the dance of “me” and “you” that takes place within it.

But without knowing that the me and the you are really illusions, love becomes struggle and conflict and fear. So it seems like the very nicest thing is to be fully involved in the dance of other-ness, without the fear that comes from believing that other-ness is the final and ultimate reality.

Knowing the essential unity of everything makes separateness a dance instead of a battle. Experiencing our other-ness makes unity a dance instead of a flat and featureless field of nothingness.